Nonfiction

Scientists and a journalist examine the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster

 
 
 <span class="cutline_leadin">FUKUSHIMA:</span> The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists. New Press. 309 pages. $27.95.
FUKUSHIMA: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists. New Press. 309 pages. $27.95.

In 1982, less than four years after Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown, members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) resisted the need to plan for worst-case scenarios at nuclear plants. The chances of a radiation leak causing widespread death, one member said, were “less than the possibility of a jumbo jet crashing into a football stadium during the Superbowl.”

Unfortunately, at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011, that jumbo jet came down.

In Fukushima, two scientists, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group, recount the unlikely story of an earthquake that unleashed a tsunami that caused three nuclear meltdowns. “Fukushima Daiichi unmasked the weaknesses of nuclear power plant design and the long-standing flaws in operations and regulatory oversight,” the authors write. “It is the saga of a technology promoted through the careful nurturing of a myth: the myth of safety. Nuclear power is an energy choice that gambles with disaster.”

Fukushima reviews the unpredictable, unprecedented events that unfolded in Japan on March 11 three years ago: a “station blackout” at a plant that needed electricity to prevent disaster; heroic workers MacGyvering solutions to never-imagined problems; and the bumbling of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the Japanese government and the NRC after the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

Though the book’s language is often technical — readers should be prepared to grapple with hydrogen explosions, probabilistic risk assessments and the need to install filters in the hardened containment vents of boiling water reactors — its message is unabashedly activist.

“TEPCO and government regulators were merely the Japanese affiliate of a global nuclear establishment of power companies, vendors, regulators, and supporters, all of whom share the complacent attitude that made an accident like Fukushima possible,” the authors write. During accidents at other plants in the United States, “the storyline would differ, but the outcome would be much the same — wrecked reactors, off-site radioactive contamination, social disruption, and massive economic cost.”

What’s most terrifying is that the outcome is still unknown. “It is difficult,” a man with a 4-year-old daughter living not far from the Fukushima exclusion zone told this reviewer in 2013. “We do not know the effects of radiation on small children.”

While less technical, more personal books about Fukushima exist — among them,William T. Vollmann’s superb Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake JapanFukushima is a great guide to yesterday’s nuclear disaster that could happen tomorrow.

Justin Moyer reviewed this book for the Washington Post.

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 <span class="cutline_leadin">LAST STORIES AND OTHER STORIES</span>. William T. Vollmann. Viking. 704 pages. $36.

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    Among contemporary American authors, William T. Vollmann’s project is unique. There is simply no other writer on the map who purchased a Thai sex slave, tried to fight with mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan and almost died in the Arctic Circle. And that’s just for starters. Vollmann has traveled to war zones, pored over the U.S.-Mexico border and made a study of the world’s destitute. His mammoth curiosity encompasses questions of war, morality, economics, lifestyle, gender, aesthetics, art and music.

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